February 27, 1862 (Thursday)
Sometimes plans simply don’t come together. There are days when one little thing can make everything go wrong at once. For Union General George B. McClellan, this was one of those days. While the General allowed his main plan to attack Richmond from the Virginia Peninsula to simmer on the back burner, he focused on a sub-plan closer to home.
Wanting to secure the B&O Railroad at Harpers Ferry, he planned to construct a semi-permanent floating bridge, constructed of canal barges. In order to establish a beach head, the previous day, he had General Nathaniel Banks throw up a temporary pontoon bridge across the Potomac, linking the Maryland side to the Virginia side. With that accomplished, and after Banks crossed most of his division, McClellan wanted to start the work on the semi-permanent floating bridge.
While the idea was a good one, something went wrong with the planning.
The canal barges to be used in making the floating bridge were floated up the C&O Canal to be passed through the lift locks into the Potomac River. The specific barges that were selected by McClellan were actually made for use in a different and larger canal. Like period railroads and the span of their rails, there was no standard width for a canal or its boats. The barges used in this other canal were four to six inches larger than the ones used by the C&O Canal.
When the barges were floated up the canal, it made no difference at all; they passed through without a problem. However, these four to six inches became unbelievably important in the early morning hours of this date.
As the men working the lift-locks prepared to pass the first canal barge from the canal into the Potomac River, they discovered that the barge was too large (or the lock too small) by a mere four to six inches. After the army engineers took in the situation, it was further discovered that the problem was not going to have an easy solution.1
By mid-afternoon, after what must have been a very taxing day, General McClellan wired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, informing him that the lift-lock was “too small to permit the canal boats to enter the river, so that it is impossible to construct the permanent bridge as I intended.” McClellan also let it be known that he was not to blame. The military railroad employees, said the General, had always asserted that the lock was large enough. He concluded that the only other option was to reconstruct the railroad bridge that was destroyed by the Rebels.
The plan to capture Winchester, Stonewall Jackson’s base of operations, would probably have to be scrapped, as the “tedious work” of rebuilding the bridge would give the Rebels time to be reinforced from Manassas.
While they certainly couldn’t narrow the barges, the Secretary of War asked why the lift-locks couldn’t be enlarged. McClellan replied that they could be enlarged, “but entire masonry must be destroyed and rebuilt, and new gates made.” This was, said McClellan, “impossible in the present stage of water and requiring many weeks at any time.” Rebuilding the railroad bridge, while tedious work, could be “rebuilt many weeks before this could be done.” It being (apparently) quicker to build a bridge than widen a lock, McClellan decided to hold off on taking Winchester (which was General Banks’ idea, anyway), and stick to just covering the B&O Railroad at Harpers Ferry.2
Oddly, prior to leaving Washington for Harpers Ferry, McClellan downplayed the Winchester objective, letting both President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton know that his main goal was to cover the railroad. Even something as catastrophic as not being able to span the Potomac was no problem if the commanding General stuck to his provincial goals.
To add to his troubles, a storm had kicked up and was playing havoc with the rickety temporary pontoon bridge thrown across the river by General Banks’ men. The bridge was in danger of collapsing, stranding two brigades on the Virginia side. Throughout the day, McClellan had fed their baggage and supplies across, but didn’t want to risk sending troops.3
Since it was clear that the temporary bridge would not hold, McClellan saw little reason for more troops to come to the Potomac. En route were 10,000 men under General Sedgwick and several brigades from other divisions. All were halted.4
Meanwhile, in Washington, after receiving the telegrams from McClellan, Secretary Stanton strode furiously to the White House to let Lincoln in on the bad news. President Lincoln was almost proud of McClellan, telling friends that “McClellan has, in this case, left himself no loophole through which to escape; for he has said to both Stanton and myself, ‘If this move fails, I will have nobody to blame but myself.'”
After Stanton read the wires to the President, they both figured that McClellan was about to completely abandon the move on Winchester. Filled with irritation and bitterness, Stanton exploded, “It means it’s a damn fizzle! It means that he doesn’t intend to do anything!” Lincoln, in turn, “swore like a Philistine,” and slammed his fist upon his desk. “Why the hell didn’t he measure first?”
He continued: “Why in the damn nation… couldn’t the general have known whether a boat could go through that lock before spending a million of dollars getting them there. I am no engineer but it seems to me that, if I wished to know whether a boat would go through a hole or a lock, common sense would teach me to go and measure it. I am almost despairing at these results. Everything seems to fail.”5
- McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p728-729. [↩]
- McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 51, Part 1, p543. [↩]
- Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. These accounts are culled from the writings of Lincoln’s secretary, John Nicolay. [↩]